It’s new year’s eve, and I’m travelling a winding Coromandel highway, twisting my way beneath stands of mature pine forest and patches of ponga and native fern. A gentle drizzle is falling, and my wiper blades, set to “intermittent”, sweep rhythmically backwards and forwards across a bug-splattered windscreen.
On the wet tarseal beneath my wheels, rainwater has mixed with the oily residue left by countless vehicles that have already passed this way, creating a treacherous, slippery cocktail. With cameras beside me, I’m destined for one of the country’s infamous New Year’s party hot spots, but the rain and abnormally cool summer temperatures look set to dampen the customary revelries in Whangamata.
The road unexpectedly throws up a hairpin, startling me. I brake hard, then descend to an open fertile valley. The road straightens as I accelerate past a side turning to the tiny harbour settlement of Opoutere.
Off to my right stands a small rural primary school, noticeable for its brightly painted maihi entranceway. It’s a reminder that the area, then better known as Wharekawa, was once populated by the iwi Ngati Hei and Ngati Hako. Maori settlement in Whangamata goes back over 600 years.
In the early 19th century, however, well-armed Ngapuhi raiders swept down from the north, decimating the local tribes. Survivors moved inland for safety, leaving the district with little or no permanent population and wide open to Crown acquisition under the provisions of the Waste lands Act.
The school grounds are set amongst rolling grassland, trimmed hedgerows and shelter-belts composed of a variety of introduced species. At a glance, it looks an idyllic environment to be educated in, and it seems that some Whangamata parents agree, choosing to bus their children 12 km out of town to fill the school’s fluctuating roll of between 75 and 100 pupils.
A few clicks further and I catch my first view of Whangamata’s 435 ha estuary. It’s a disconcerting sight. Where one might have expected a picturesque scene of tidal waters quietly lapping a sandy shoreline, mangroves have taken over. From my roadside vantage point, the waterline is hardly visible over the leafy tops of a well-established marine forest.
At the outskirts of town I pass the abandoned Whangamata Hotel. The empty building stands solitary and neglected, a dense matting of vines and creepers threatening to engulf the derelict shell of what was once a popular watering hole. A freshly painted hoarding beside the empty car park advertises a New World supermarket nearer to town. In its heyday, the Whangamata Hotel regularly played host to touring headline acts following the summer pub circuit. Now it looks like the only clientele are ghosts.
At the junction of Harry Watt Drive and State Highway 25 (which bypasses south to Waihi) stands a billboard enticing visitors into town with the greeting “Welcome to Whangamata” and a summary of the attractions on offer: “Beach–Shops–Cafes”. In quick succession, more signs follow warning of a district-wide fire ban, an alcohol ban in all public places and, owing to a summertime water shortage, a ban on the use of sprinkler systems.
I take the road into town, named after a member of the pioneering Watt family, who first farmed, and later subdivided, the surrounding hillside overlooking the Moanaanuanu estuary. It was here, at Moana Point, that much of the early settlement stood. Prominent among the cluster of buildings were a general store and a kauri-gum business, both owned from the early 1890s by Robert Henry Watt, who supplied provisions and bought gum from diggers working in the area.
As in many parts of Coromandel Peninsula in the late 1800s, the main drawcards for settlers were gold and timber. Prospectors began mining operations around Whangamata in 1887, on a ridge in the Wentworth valley near the Wairoa Stream, calling the area the Goldwater Claim. The mine was worked on and off until the mid-1920s, with, at its peak, a workforce of 300, despite sparse returns.
North of the town another mining settlement sprang up beside the Wharekawa River, at the site of the dubiously titled Luck-at-Last Claim. One settler, Ben Gwilliam, recounted life there in the early days. In 1899, accompanied by his bride, he arrived from Auckland by boat, and the couple took up residence in a two-room house with a clay-floored kitchen. Stores came from Auckland by sea and, after being landed at the port, had to be carried by foot 19 km up to the mine. The Gwilliams lived on “tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned jam and tinned everything else,” wearing out more tin-openers than knives or forks.
The overland routes from the fledgling settlement were bullock tracks, leading either south to Waihi, 22 miles (35 km) distant, or west over a low saddle in the Coromandel Range to Hikutaia. The latter route, known as The Wires, followed the Auckland–Wellington telegraph line, erected in 1872 to avoid insurgency in Waikato around the time of the land wars.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the breathtaking route I have just driven, over the Kopu–Hikuai road, was opened, and not until the mid-1980s that the last 24 km to Whangamata were finally sealed.
I cross the brackish water of the Moanaanuanu estuary, a branch of the main harbour fed by the Wentworth River, via what has become one of several contentious issues for Whangamata—its causeway. This was opened in 1976 to enable development to proceed at the Moana Point subdivision, the Waihi Gazette heralding the occasion “a red-letter day for Whangamata and one which enables the town and district to expand in future years”.
Three decades on, a group of concerned residents blame the causeway for the proliferation of mangroves now choking the estuary. Its construction, they believe, has reduced tidal flushing of the harbour, the resulting build-up of sediment providing ideal conditions for mangroves to flourish in.
As I cross the causeway, I can’t miss the concerned residents’ efforts to remedy matters. With the aid of chainsaws, a rugby-paddock-sized dent has been made in the mangrove forest, leaving an ugly expanse of mud and rows of mangrove pneumatophores exposed in a large rectangular area for all to see. A stench permeates the air.
On the other side of the causeway sits another of Whangamata’s contentious issues—the site approved for a 205-berth marina. Boat-owners have been lobbying to build a marina in the harbour for 15 drawn-out years. In March 2006, they almost lost their chance altogether when Conservation Minister Chris Carter, in what seemed a final victory for marina opponents, vetoed the proposal.
In a rousing speech to Parliament, Carter cited his reasons for declining the application: concern for the ecology of the harbour, and the fact that the marina’s construction would involve dredging 167,000 m3 of the harbour floor, with a further 6000 m3 needing to be dredged each year, ad infinitum, producing an “inappropriate impact” on the harbour’s shellfish beds. In what could be a line straight out of Joni Mitchell’s lyric’s to Big Yellow Taxi, the application also required that part of the natural salt marsh—publicly owned coastal land—be turned into a car park for marina users.
However, following an appeal by the Whangamata Marina Society, the minister was judged by the High Court to have made a procedural error in halting the development and was forced to rescind his decision. The task of deciding how to proceed then fell to Environment Minister David Benson-Pope. After seeking more facts from the Environment Court, Benson-Pope claimed he now had “considerably more information than my colleague the Minister of Conservation had when he made his decision,” and gave the project the OK to proceed—with a few precautionary conditions.
Many are still unconvinced of the benefits the marina will supposedly bring to the town, concerned that housing affordability, already “through the roof”, will spike, causing an exodus of younger, lower-income earners, a lot of them gainfully employed in the town’s seasonal service industries. But pro-marina sentiments are strong in a coastal resort town renowned since before the days of Zane Grey for its proximity to some of the country’s best blue-water fishing grounds.
As far back as 1892, the Auckland Weekly News was trumpeting Whangamata’s tourism virtues as “fishing of all kinds, pheasant and duck shooting in season”, citing the return sea fare from Auckland as £2. Nevertheless, despite a six-weekly steamer service—or maybe because of it—during the decades leading up to WWII it wasn’t tourism but farming and forestry that gradually brought prosperity to the district.
Plantation forestry—which continues to provide work in the area to this day—gained its first real foothold in the 1930s, when the State Forest Service began growing radiata pines on the hilly flanks of the ranges, along with several smaller stands of redwood. It also laid out a nursery at Tawa Tawa, offering employment to numbers of local Maori women. At the height of the Depression, a shipload of unemployed men was brought from Auckland, accommodated in military-style camps at Wharekawa and set the back-breaking task of planting the steep hillsides in yet more pine.
In town, a school was opened in 1930 with a roll of nine. The road to Waihi—often impassable in winter months, even on horseback—was eventually metalled by 1935, allowing a regular mail service and access by automobile. The passenger steamers that had supplied the district since the early settler days—running aground at low water near the present-day wharf to unload their cargo, and refloating on the high tide to depart—became less common, eventually disappearing altogether as roading improved and the area gave up its isolation.
Around this time the first beach-front subdivision was begun on Whangamata’s sandy soil, when Philip Williamson, a resident since 1919, decided to sell three rows of sections beside the recreation reserve he had given to Thames County Council (the borough administrators), where the present-day surf club stands.
The properties, priced according to their distance from the beach, sold for the princely sums of £35, £30 and £25. The first two cottages were erected in 1934 and remained standing into the 1980s. Today, a single empty beachfront section on the Esplanade close to Williamson Park is being marketed at a staggering three million dollars.
The post-war years brought continued subdivision on the sand flats attracting more people, both permanent settlers and holiday-makers, and with beach sections still fetching little more than £100, land in the town continued to be considered cheap. The first plantings of pine were now reaching maturity, and a sawmill was opened to process the timber, while a commercial centre began to take shape near the port, with a post office and a few shops appearing.
The new arrivals quickly got to work on their sections, mostly building baches. Most of the township’s streets were laid out during this period as construction continued, albeit in an ad hoc way. Electricity reached the town in 1955, so residents could finally stash their kerosene lanterns for good.
I pass a few of those early Fibrolite-clad baches, with shabby sofas and chilly bins laden with ice-chilled beverages strategically dragged to the kerbside boundary, eluding the alcohol ban by mere centimetres. A group of young men, clutching half-full bottles of beer and alcopops, gesticulate wildly, jeering at cars driving by in the charge of desirable members of the opposite sex. They wave a hand-painted cardboard sign: “Party here, tonight!”
Avoiding port road, the town’s congested main street, I slip into an empty car park off the Hunt Road cul-de-sac, overlooking the beach. Beside me, a couple of police officers conduct a strip-search of a tired-looking silver BMW. The boot hangs open, its contents strewn on the ground around it, while two young Polynesians stand by, watching powerlessly as the constables rummage through their battered suitcases, stuffed with hastily gathered holiday apparel, in search of items that breach the alcohol bylaws.
From my vantage point, I have a clear view out over “the bar”, Whangamata’s legendary left-hand surf break. For generations of surfers since the early 1960s, the “Whanga bar” has been the El Dorado of New Zealand surf spots. Immortalised across the bottoms of surfboards in photo-realistic airbrushed spray paintings by surfer–artist Shane Egan, it has always been depicted as a crystal-clear, endlessly tubing wave, brushed by an offshore breeze and without a soul in the line-up, emerging before the distinctive pine-topped bluffs of Te Karaka Point. With such an image rooted in popular surfing mythology, no wonder the Whanga bar is considered a surfing nirvana.
My own first encounter with this famed surf break, 25 years ago, when I was a teenage rookie-surfer, was an altogether different affair. In the company of a couple of older, experienced, wave-riders, I had set off early from home further down the coast. Anticipating an optimum combination of wind and swell conditions on the bar, we had driven for several hours in darkness, to arrive as the first rays of dawn illuminated a car pack filled with ecstatic surfers, hastily waxing boards and donning wet suits.
But at my first sight of monster ocean swells marching past Clark Island into the bay, elation instantly gave way to dread. After being cajoled into accompanying one of my companions with taunts about unproven masculinity, I felt more like I was headed for the hangman’s gallows than a surfing nirvana. Leaving the third member of our party a safe spectator on the beach, I pushed off from the shallows into the chilly water and began paddling out towards the distant take-off spot.
One of the reasons for the Whangamata bar’s popularity as a surf break is the ease with which anyone can paddle out to it. A deep-water channel runs between the rocky Te Karaka Point and the sandbank that forms the break, allowing surfers (and boaties) to navigate beyond the breakers without first having to fight their way through the white-water shore-break. Most days you can make it out to the back without getting your hair wet. But not this day.
With a mixture of adrenaline and fear charging through my veins, I watched from sea level as walls of water the size of mountains appeared on the horizon and marched menacingly towards me. The surfers in the line-up scattered, most scrambling furiously out to deeper water and, hopefully, safety, as what seemed like half the Pacific moved landwards.
From the corner of my eye, as I paddled frantically over the swells, I noticed several locals—one a future national champion—jockeying for position further inside the take-off spot than the rest of us dared to venture. This was where the swell would first connect with the shallow sand bar, forcing the wave to jack up to its maximum height before throwing a thick lip of water out and over itself, forming a perfectly cylindrical tubing wave that would run for three or four hundred metres towards the shoreline.
How long this naturally formed sand bar at the entrance to Whangamata Harbour has been producing waves like this no one can truly say. But after I’d spent a couple of hours that day sitting off to the side watching—and trying to avoid drowning—one thing had become evident to me: the locals ruled the bar.
This was hardly a surprise really, since many of the country’s top surfers have at one time or another chosen Whangamata as the place to live and surf out their days. Whole surfing-family dynasties, such as the Kennings, Shanks and Davies, have grown-up there, and like some amphibious branch of the Sopranos they have not only taken control of the surf, but also created an entire industry in the town to support themselves.
In 1978, when pioneer Australian surfboard-maker Bob Davie arrived in town and began manufacturing boards in the back of a run-down motel on Port Road that he paid $9000 for, Whangamata was a sleepy backwater.
“The kind of place where tumbleweeds blow down the main street,” Bob recollected when I paid a visit recently to his 1.6 ha lifestyle block, opposite the town’s manicured golf course. With a handful of close friends as partners, Bob opened up shop, trading as Saltwater Surfboards, a name that quickly became synonymous with New Zealand surfing, and put Whangamata firmly on the surf map.
At the peak of their production, the Saltwater crew were producing between 15 and 20 new boards a week, training up apprentice shapers in the factory—several would go on to gain international prominence—and selling surf-label clothing and beachwear to the throngs of holiday-makers scrambling over Whangamata’s white sandy beaches. Surfers travelled far and wide to purchase new boards in the town, and word quickly got out about “the bar”.
Before long, on any given weekend when the surf was up, you would find shoals of surfers in the water, squabbling over whose wave was whose. The takeaway joints relished all those extra famished stomachs that the surf brought into town, and business was brisk over the summer months.
The town now supports four or five surf-related retailers on the main street and two surfboard factories in the industrial quarter, along with several backyard operations, including Bob’s. Now in semi-retirement, Bob himself still shapes the occasional board on request. Such is his reputation that his latest creation, a replica 1963 Malibu, is destined not for the surf but for a collector’s wall.
Bob surprised me when he told me he’d discouraged his son from following in his footsteps. His reason was that competition from cheap imported surfboards—manufactured by Asian workers who may never see the ocean, let alone set foot on a surfboard—makes it tough for Whangamata’s homegrown board-makers to keep their heads above water.
The surge in popularity that surfing experienced from the 1980s onwards brought a new economy to the town, and along with it a growing concern for the ecology of the coastline. When a few from the Whangamata surfing fraternity noticed they were getting sick more frequently than their landlubber counterparts, they started taking an interest in the health of the harbour, since they were spending hours at a time surfing at its mouth on outgoing tides and ingesting its water.
One local surfer, Paul Shanks, soon found himself drawn into a series of complex bureaucratic battles to improve the harbour’s water quality, eventually forming a ratepayer group called Clean Water Whangamata (CWW) to tackle the issue.
Shanks, a stocky, barrel-chested Westie, had grown up surfing the rugged west coast beaches of Piha and Karekare. Then, in 1975, he had upped sticks, moved to a family holding on Whangamata’s sand flats and started a business shaping surfboards.
Not really intending to cross swords with officialdom, Shanks raised concerns with the council about the state of the harbour when a red discolouration, caused by algal blooms, appeared around its fringe. The blooms, as well as surface scum, suggested that faecal coliform bacteria and nutrients in run-off were contaminating the waterway, poisoning fish and shellfish along with a few surfers.
Environment Waikato (EW) was called on to assess the situation and locate the source of the problem—if, indeed, there was one. After testing the water from around the harbour and beaches, EW concluded that it met national quality guidelines and, apart from in several specific areas, found the shellfish safe to eat. It blamed the contamination in the lower Wentworth catchment on livestock and found no evidence of any leakage from the town’s wastewater-treatment plant or its spray-irrigation system.
CWW was not convinced, so, over the summer of 1998, it raised funds through an art auction to carry out some laboratory tests of its own. The results of these differed from those of EW’s tests, showing significantly higher levels of faecal contamination. However, EW had taken its samples both at greater depth than CWW and during dry weather, and when the results came in from a second batch of EW samples taken after rain, they confirmed that Shanks and CWW were correctly onto a health problem in the harbour.
Shanks and his band of supporters next found themselves embroiled in a nine-year campaign to fix up the town’s inadequate wastewater system. A layman in such matters, Shanks immersed himself in technicalities and scientific jargon and soon began making submissions that would lead to the Environment Court.
CWW eventually approached the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who decided to use Whangamata as a case study, agreeing to investigate the group’s concerns about the state of the wastewater plant, along with the prolific increase in mangroves in the estuary.
What the commissioner found was a town whose infrastructure was coming under intense pressure from swarms of visitors who contributed nothing to its costs. He also found that the wastewater spray-irrigation area—the main source of contamination in the harbour catchment—was not large enough. His study discovered that almost as soon as it had commenced operation, the wastewater plant had sprayed only 38 ha of forested hills above the town, when the original proposal was for an area of 72 ha. By 2001, the area being sprayed was down to 24 ha, causing an overload of treated waste on the steep hillsides that inevitably drained into the harbour.
The study also found that when the treatment plant had been installed, provision had been made for upgrading it as the town grew in size, but no such upgrade had taken place. In addition, a study undertaken by Opus Consultants came to the conclusion that the aerated lagoon’s capacity was insufficient during the peak loading period over Christmas and New Year, when the resident population swelled from 5000 to 10 times that number. Ironically, it was precisely at that time that Whangamata’s harbour and beach amenities were in greatest use by bathers and beach-goers.
Following more years of arguing over what improvements were needed, it was finally announced in 2007, after mediation between the council and ratepayer groups, that the upgrade of Whangamata’s wastewater plant could proceed, with CWW giving a nod of approval.
While some in Whangamata no doubt see Shanks as just another environmental agitator, costing ratepayers unnecessary money, his efforts in leading the campaign for healthier water should ultimately benefit more than just a few surfers.
In 2006 his efforts were recognised by the Ministry of the Environment, and he was invited to Wellington to be presented with a Green Ribbon Award by Environment Minister David Benson-Pope—the very same politician who went on to approve construction of a marina on the harbour’s salt marsh, the focus of Shanks’ next environmental campaign.
After all his lobbying to improve the quality of the water he surfs in, Shanks now fears the dredging for the marina will disrupt the process of sand deposition at the harbour entrance and have an adverse effect on the bar. Together with a group of surfer allies, he has founded the Surfbreak Protection Society, dedicated to conserving the “treasures” of the New Zealand surfing community—its surf breaks.
This time, however, it’s a David and Goliath battle, with the surfers up against the interests of a wealthy boating fraternity determined to have its marina at any cost and reported as having already spent over a million dollars in pursuit of its goal.
The rain has grown steadier as I’ve made a circuit of the town, and seems to have drowned any expectations of wild New Year’s Eve beach parties. A bunch of youths parked up on a driveway shelter beneath beach umbrellas, several garbed in wet suits, quietly sipping beers while trying to appear oblivious to the melancholy skies above.
It’s a passive affair compared with the riotous behaviour the town has experienced on previous New Year’s Eves, when main-street shop frontages have been damaged in displays of violent and drunken disorderliness. I came here some years back to document the seasonal invasion of loutish New Year’s interlopers and spent the night in the company of the riot squad (see New Zealand Geographic, issue 39). The police’s solution to the problem then was to bring in a regiment of constabulary—around 150 boys in blue that first year—and strictly enforce a ban on alcohol in any public space.
This strategy proved so successful that the police next expanded the town’s tiny cellblock, known as the Hilton, to accommodate and process all the additional arrests they were making. This seemed to work. When I returned a couple of years later, the incidence of out-of-control confrontations was well down. While the police presence in the town still remains high over Christmas and New Year, the effect of having bobbies in Lycra bike-shorts cycling around Whangamata’s suburbs has been to subdue the inebriated anarchy that pummelled the community in the past.
I decide to take my leave early this year. The weather has extinguished all likelihood of high-spirited festivities, and most people are huddled indoors. As I drive out of town towards the imposing Coromandel Range, I ponder the future of this seaside settlement that I’ve been drawn to since I was a rebellious teenager myself.
Will the marina development really be the blessing for the town that the Whangamata Marina Society claims, bringing jobs and stemming the tide of departures indicated by the last census? Or might it instead bring about the loss of an important estuarine ecology and a one-of-a-kind surf break, as others in the community believe? No one seems able to say conclusively.
What does seem certain, though, is that the marina, like the causeway it is destined to abut, will impose further changes on the harbour and this once sleepy little town by the sea.